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Understanding Trauma Bonds

A trauma bond refers to a profound emotional connection established with an abusive or manipulative individual. It typically involves a cycle of alternating affection and mistreatment, leading to a potent and enduring bond that can be challenging to sever.

Experiencing abuse can evoke complex emotions that are difficult to comprehend, especially when instances of kindness and intimacy are interspersed with abuse.


It's common to form a bond with someone who initially shows affection. Many abusive relationships start with excessive displays of affection and attention, known as “love-bombing”.


When the abuse starts, it can catch you off guard. Subsequently, the abuser may apologise, promise to change, or rationalise their behaviour as a one-off mistake.


These manipulative tactics often prove effective, as you cling to memories of the relationship's early stages and believe in the possibility of the person reverting to their former self.


Trauma bonding can occur in various contexts, including:


Intimate partner relationships: Trauma bonds commonly develop between romantic partners where one partner is abusive or manipulative. The cycle of affection and mistreatment in such relationships can create a strong emotional attachment that is difficult to break.


Parental or caregiver relationships: Children may form trauma bonds with abusive or neglectful parents or caregivers. Despite experiencing harm, they may still feel a deep emotional connection and attachment to their abuser, often due to a combination of fear, dependence, and intermittent displays of affection.


Hostage-kidnapper relationships: Individuals who are held captive or taken hostage may develop trauma bonds with their captors. The intense and prolonged stress of the hostage situation, combined with occasional acts of kindness or perceived leniency from the captor, can lead to a complex psychological bond.


Cultic relationships: Members of cults often form trauma bonds with their leaders or within the group itself. Manipulation tactics, such as love-bombing, followed by control and abuse, can create a strong sense of loyalty and dependency among followers.


Sibling relationships: In cases where there is abuse or neglect within sibling relationships, trauma bonds can form. Siblings may develop intense emotional connections as they navigate shared experiences of trauma, even if those experiences involve mistreatment by one sibling towards another.


Teacher-student or mentor-protege relationships: Trauma bonds can also form in relationships where there is an imbalance of power, such as between a mentor or teacher and their student or protege. If the mentor or teacher is abusive or manipulative, the student may develop a strong attachment despite experiencing mistreatment.


The 7 Stages of Trauma Bonds


The process of forming a trauma bond typically involves several distinct stages:

Signs of a Trauma Bond


Identifying signs of a trauma bond can vary depending on the nature of the relationship, yet they typically share two primary characteristics:


1.     A Cyclical Pattern


Firstly, trauma bonds rely on intermittent reinforcement, characterised by a recurring cycle of abuse. Unlike situations of constant mistreatment, where there is no kindness or concern for your well-being, which might prompt a swifter departure, abusive relationships often include sporadic displays of kindness or affection.


It becomes challenging to leave when your abuser intermittently treats you well — perhaps offering gifts, professing love or words of kindness — creating confusion as these actions may be misconstrued as indications of lasting change.


Over time, the positive moments overshadow the fear of further abuse, creating a gradual rebuilding of trust. Consequently, memories of past mistreatment may be suppressed or overlooked until the cycle restarts.


2.     A Power Imbalance


Trauma bonds are also rooted in a fundamental imbalance of power, leaving you feeling as though your abuser exerts control to a degree where resistance or escape seems elusive.


Even upon exiting the abusive relationship, breaking the bond can prove really hard without professional intervention. Feelings of incompleteness or dependence may persist, leading to a potential return to the abusive cycle simply because it is familiar, and the prospect of life without it appears daunting.


Additional Tell-tale Signs


Here are some additional hallmarks of trauma bonds:


  • Despite feeling unhappy and perhaps even disliking your abuser, you find yourself unable to terminate the relationship.

  • You dwell on the positive moments in the relationship, using them as evidence of genuine care and affection.

  • Promises of change from your abuser upon expressing the desire to leave are not followed by meaningful efforts to enact change.

  • When others express concern, you find yourself making excuses for and defending the abusive person's behaviour.

  • Despite experiencing mistreatment, you maintain hope that your abuser will change and continue to place trust in them.

  • You shield your abuser by concealing instances of abusive behaviour.

  • Attempts to leave the relationship result in you feeling in a state of physical and emotional distress.

Trauma bonds can persist long after the abuse has ceased. You may find yourself unable to shake thoughts of the person who caused you harm and may feel compelled to reconnect or give the relationship another chance.


While not definitive, a helpful exercise involves considering whether you would advise a loved one to exit a similar relationship. If your honest answer is yes, yet you still struggle to remove yourself from your own situation, it likely signifies a trauma bond.


Reasons Behind Trauma Bonds


People who haven't encountered abuse often find it very hard to understand why someone would remain in an abusive relationship, assuming they possess the capacity to leave freely.


However, the presence of a trauma bond renders leaving exceptionally difficult.


Abuse isn't a chosen path, and the formation of trauma bonds isn't a conscious decision; rather, it arises from potent biological processes.


The Freeze Response


You may already know that we respond automatically to perceived threats in various ways, by either fighting, fleeing, freezing, fawning, or flopping.


In the face of abuse or the fear of potential future mistreatment, the brain registers impending threat and sends signals to the rest of the body.


Adrenaline and cortisol — the stress hormones — surge, activating survival instincts and eliciting emotional and physical tension.


The imbalance of power becomes apparent here: if you feel incapable of safely escaping or confronting the abuser, freezing may appear as the most viable option, compelling you to remain.


As thoughts of abuse become overwhelming, you may choose to focus on the positive aspects of the relationship while disregarding or suppressing the negative.


Excusing the abuser’s actions and justifying their behaviour serve to rationalise your decision to stay. Each cycle reinforces feelings of powerlessness, fostering a sense of inevitability that escape isn't possible.


You begin to accept your abuser’s version of reality: believing you're dependent on each other and that no one else cares. These falsehoods slowly weaken your sense of self, making it harder to break free from the relationship.



Hormones also play a role in trauma bonding. Just like dopamine fuels addiction, it can reinforce trauma bonds.


After abusive behaviour, the calm that often follows can ease your stress. Apologies, gifts, or affection from the abuser act as rewards, triggering the release of dopamine.


This pleasure hormone strengthens your connection with the abuser. Seeking that dopamine boost, you try to please them to earn their affection.


Physical affection releases oxytocin, another feel-good hormone that strengthens bonds and eases fear. It might ease emotional pain, making it easier to focus on the positive treatment from the abuser.


Breaking a Trauma Bond

Individuals who endured childhood abuse may find themselves gravitating towards similar dynamics in adulthood, as their brains are accustomed to the cyclical patterns of highs and lows.


A background of trauma can intensify the challenge of breaking a trauma bond, yet it is possible to disrupt this cycle.


It's crucial to acknowledge the existence of the trauma bond as a vital initial step, although recognising it can prove challenging amid ongoing abuse.


To identify evidence of abuse and notice signs of trauma bonding, consider the following tips:


Keep a record: Document daily occurrences to identify patterns and detect problematic behaviours that might not seem abusive in the moment. Record instances of abuse and any justifications offered by your partner.


Consider the relationship objectively: Approach your relationship as an observer reading a story. Detaching yourself can make it easier to assess negative events. Pay attention to the difficult details and assess their healthiness.


Talk to loved ones and trusted people: While discussing abuse is difficult, loved ones can provide valuable insights. Challenge yourself to listen to their concerns and evaluate the accuracy of their observations.


Avoid self-blame: Understand that you are not to blame for the abuse. Self-criticism and blame hinder autonomy and perpetuate the cycle. Replace negative self-talk with affirmations emphasising your worth and know that you deserve better treatment.


Cut off communication: Upon deciding to leave the abusive relationship, sever all contact to break the cycle permanently. Create physical distance and consider changing contact information or blocking the person entirely.


Seek professional help: While personal efforts can weaken trauma bonds, professional support is often necessary for lasting change. A therapist specialising in trauma can offer insights into abuse patterns, assist in setting boundaries, and provide tools for healthy relationships. Working with a trauma-informed therapist is recommended, especially for addressing abuse-related trauma.

The bottom line


Abuse is never your fault. Neither is the development of a trauma bond.


It may take some time to regain a sense of self-worth and feel as if you’ve finally broken free, but support from a trained professional can make all the difference.

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